Are the Palestinians headed for civil war?

May 25, 2006|By BARRY RUBIN

WASHINGTON -- Will there be a Palestinian civil war? Probably not. But a major struggle is under way that may be the biggest internal Palestinian conflict in memory, perhaps in history.

On one level, the battle is between Hamas and Fatah, between Islamism and nationalism. It is also a struggle between two groups, each wanting the fruits of leadership: power, prestige, money.

With the demise of unchallenged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and - no less important - with his Fatah movement's inability to gain a state because of intransigence, the way was open for the rise of Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. This trend was also made possible by Mr. Arafat's encouragement of anarchy and attempt to use Hamas for his own purposes. Of course, it can also be traced to Fatah's corruption and incompetence in running the Palestinian Authority for 12 years.

The turning point was Hamas' landslide victory in the Jan. 25 election, partly because of Fatah's internal splits. Another factor was Fatah's incredible arrogance and inflexibility. It assumed that no one else could possibly lead the Palestinians. As Fatah's campaign manager told me before the balloting, "People will vote for Abu Mazen [PA leader Mahmoud Abbas] and everything will be OK."

Since then, power has been divided between Mr. Abbas and a Hamas-dominated parliament and Cabinet. Mr. Abbas unilaterally has given himself control over borders, the media and some security agencies. Hamas is fuming but cannot do much about this power grab. Worse for Hamas, the PA bureaucracy, including security forces, is dominated by thousands of Fatah members.

International sanctions against giving money to the Hamas regime also hurt the Islamists. Yet the European Union earlier stopped aid to the PA because of its financial irresponsibility. This should be remembered in the face of a strong temptation to declare Fatah, as opposed to Hamas, the good guys, or at least the lesser of two evils.

While Fatah is somewhat less horrible than Hamas, it is Fatah's past incitement, terrorism and refusal to make real peace that are at the root of the current situation. There is no reason to believe it would do better in the future if restored to power.

There is much discussion about why Hamas won the elections. Some would say that Palestinians supported Hamas' program, others that voters reacted to Fatah's corruption. Both points are valid, but there is more.

About half of Hamas' voters have shown they support its program. The other half has no problems with its views except that of Islamizing society. Yet regarding terrorism, Israel, peace and general worldview, there is not a big difference between Fatah and Hamas, except on the issue of Islamization.

What of the future?

First, can Fatah return to office? This is possible but far from certain. Not the slightest reform has taken place in Fatah, nor has any of its leadership been replaced or the younger generation fully incorporated. Fatah, as was once said of France's reactionary Bourbon dynasty, has neither learned nor forgotten anything.

A Hamas-Fatah deal is also possible but not likely. Any such arrangement would necessitate Fatah accepting the role of junior partner, which Hamas never did. Given the Fatah mindset, this seems improbable, though some cadre may join Hamas out of its own views or opportunism. One reason for keeping up the pressure on the Hamas regime is to discourage such a rapprochement.

Second, how does Fatah compete with Hamas? Certainly not by laying out an alternative, moderate line. If Fatah wished, it could urge an end to the eternal struggle and a compromise with Israel that quickly would win it a state and international support. While a few in Fatah think this way, Mr. Abbas among them, there is no sign that anyone is seriously considering such a strategy.

Instead, Fatah is competing by trying to prove that it is just as militant as the Islamists, including escalating its own attempts at terrorism. Since the election, Fatah statements and actions are more, rather than less, extreme.

Of course, Fatah can also hope that Western and Israeli pressures will bring down Hamas and simply hand it power once again. Fatah is encouraging its supporters to blame Hamas for the PA's economic problems and to demonstrate to demand their salaries. Equally, Fatah is resisting any moves by Hamas to take over the security forces and put its people into the bureaucracy. This effort may even succeed. But such an outcome cannot be taken for granted.

Will there be a civil war? Clearly, armed resistance to Hamas' encroachment on Fatah-controlled areas and institutions happens periodically. Yet both sides are trying to avoid an all-out struggle. Continuing anarchy and periodic clashes seem more likely than full-scale battle.

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